Category Archives: walking

Visiting the Spriggans

a brick column on the edge of a Cornish cliff

mysterious column perched on the cliff edge

In Cornwall where the landscape seems filled with the energies of invisible beings there are some strange sights to be seen, especially on the cliffs. Recent man made structures, tin mines and the like, have been weathered by nature into something resembling an outdoor sculpture park for modern art. Older man made structures such as burial mounds, also tumbled about by the elements, sometimes stand quite close by, as if all of these constructions are part of one great puzzle. It creates a dramatic, slightly alien and menacing scene, as if a civilisation abandoned its weird cities on the Cornish coast. Only the Cornish nature spirits, the Spriggans, are left to skip about amongst the ruins and scare the imaginative and unwary.

mining ruins near Botallack, joiner photograph

joiner photograph of the strange cliff landscape near Botallack

Many years ago I had an encounter with the Spriggans when staying in an old farmhouse in Cornwall near the sea. A group of us had booked the house but myself and a friend were the first to arrive that winter’s evening. We entered the house, had a quick look round and then, while in the kitchen, heard a sturdy knock on the door. Expecting others from the group had arrived we rushed to let them in, only to open the door into nothing but stillness and dark. We suspected our friends were playing a trick on us so sneaked around the outside of the house hoping to find them in hiding. No-one was about and there was no sign of any car apart from the one we arrived in. Much later, the first of our friends did arrive. We heard the car clearly that time. In the visitors’ book several entries attested to the ‘welcome’ of the Spriggans on first entering the house.

painter's backpack, Cornwall trip

carrying painting gear across the Cornish landscape

This time we were visiting Cornwall to scour the cliff paths for painting opportunities. I had brought my pochade box and a total of nine canvases in the smaller 6×8 inch size. The end of an eventful 2016 had left me a bit thrown off my painting stride so I was hoping to get back into painting out of doors, which should help to loosen up my slightly rusty skills.

A rocky beach at the end of the valley led to the coast path and cliffs in both directions. Turning south I could walk up onto a narrow ledge path that teetered high over the sea with dark mining tunnels leading deep into the rock. The feeling of foreboding was lifted by flowers growing all over the cliff tops, comical red-footed screeching birds known as choughs and many helpful benches carved out of the rocks, perfect for sitting and staring at the waves crashing below. In the distance two ship-wrecking islands, the Brisons, came and went in the mist, shredding the sea into spray as it cannoned into them.

The Brisons, plein air, oil on canvas, 6x8 inches

sitting on the coast path high above the waves, looking at the Brisons in the distance, oil sketch on canvas, 6×8 inches

Taking the cliff path in the other direction led up past many mine shafts and an ancient barrow to Cape Cornwall where the waves seemed to be taller than anywhere else. I scrambled down from the cliff edge onto a rock and set up my pochade box, managing two quick sketches before the last light disappeared. I had to hurry back to the house but made it well before dusk settled in. Disappointingly, there were no spirits dancing around the barrow as I passed.

Cape Cornwall plein air sketch in oils on canvas, 6x8 inches

oil study of Cape Cornwall painted from a clifftop perch on small 6×8 inch canvas

oil study of Cape Cornwall waves, small 6x8 inches canvas

plein air study of waves at Cape Cornwall, oil on canvas, 6×8 inches

The trip was shrouded in mist a lot of the time so I attempted to paint it. This wasn’t very easy but I thought it was probably good practice for sharpening up my skills.

oil on canvas sketch of a view from the Cornish coast path near Cape Cornwall

view from the coast path painted in misty conditions, small 6×8 inch canvas, oils

At the end of the holiday the mist became rain but I had become a bit crazed by then and ended up out on a cliff edge trying to shelter behind a rock (horizontal wind and rain gives you more sheltering options) and painted a pile of stones nearby that looked, under the influence of impending hypothermia, a bit like a giant and slightly ominous king sitting looking out to sea.

peculiar rock formation, Cornish cliffs on a rainy windswept day, oil study on canvas, 6x8 inches

painting on the cliffs in the wind and rain, a brooding and strange rock formation looms over the waves below, oil on canvas, 6×8 inches

Back at the house it was dark but there were still jugs waiting to be painted, arranging themselves nicely on the windowsill.

three jugs, Cornish room at night, oil study on 6x8 inch canvas

old Cornish jugs by the window at night, oil on canvas, 6×8 inches

Now we’re home again I miss being out on the cliffs.

plein air sketch from Cornish cliffs, oil on canvas, 6x8 inches

view painted from the cliffs near the Count House, Botallack, oil on small 6×8 inch canvas

But the sea and the peculiar landscape above it will wait for another visit.

chimneys on the cliffs, Cornwall

remains of a strange civilisation or tin mine chimneys on the cliffs

sculptural mining ruins in Cornwall

strange modern sculptures on the cliffs or mining remains?

mining ruins on a Cornish cliff

nature makes modern art from ruined mines

Cornwall, columns on a cliff top

cliff sentinels guard the view

setting sun over the sea with distant Brisons, Cornwall

sunset over the Brisons, Cornwall

The second tree and the river daemon

Settlebeck Gill view with rocks

at the start of the Gill walk, looking back down

Summer heat sent us to explore the river that runs, sometimes hidden, down a cleft in the fell. Walkers tend to take the top route that only occasionally overlooks our watery path and this means that, once we leave the fell wall behind, Tilly and I usually have the stream all to ourselves.

Welsh Springer Spaniel

walking companion

We always visit the first tree, a sycamore, that bears the scars of dozens of names. People obviously walk as far as this on summer days and then carve its trunk, which seems quite cruel. We never see them though, so hope that the tree spends most of its days unscathed.

sycamore tree in Settlebeck Gill

we reach the first tree

A lovely pool lies beneath the tree, dappled with sunlight. Tilly likes to wallow in it and I took her photo, only to see what looks like a second spaniel in the water. A trick of the light – but I’m not surprised because the whole of this place has a mysterious atmosphere. It would be quite in keeping to suddenly catch sight of a gnome peering through some ferns although, probably luckily for me, this hasn’t happened yet.

dog in pool with rocks and grass

the pool under the tree – but is there one dog or two?

After saying farewell to the first tree we follow the river upstream.

view of hills and tree

leaving the first tree behind us we climb higher

And the second tree appears.

tree, gorse, hills and sheep

the second tree appears inside its rocky cleft

In keeping with the mysterious theme you may notice something in the entrance to the rocky cleft, which I fancifully imagine as an almost-grotto, with the tree forming a kind of roof. It’s a vague shape that resembles a seated figure with lots of hair.

river, rocky cleft and tree

the entrance to the ‘grotto’ with the second tree

As you get nearer you see the river itself has assembled wood and hay to create this sculpted form, a seated ‘river god’.

river sculpture, figure

the river sculpted its own ‘god’ guarding the entrance to the ‘grotto’

river sculpture, wood and grass

a closer look at the grotto’s guardian

The river god seems quite benign so Tilly sunbathes, paddles and digs while I sketch.

sketching location

here I sat and sketched

I try to capture the direction and energy of the various forms in the landscape.

movement in a landscape, oil pastel sketch

first sketch of the ‘grotto’ in oil pastel, A6 sketchbook – trying to capture the movement

We scurry back down after a while when storm clouds begin to gather.

Settlebeck Gill stormy day

storm clouds gathering on the horizon – looking down the Gill

Returning to the same spot a few days later there has been a change.

river daemon sitting in front of waterfall

the ‘grotto’ seems to have a new guardian

I couldn’t resist altering the river’s sculpture.

river god sculpture sititng in ravine

looking down into the ravine at the river god

Maybe the gods were not amused because, while we were there, some rather strange signs appeared in the sky.

feather cloud and hill view

a giant feather floats across the sky, accompanied by other peculiarly shaped clouds

feather and egg clouds

more unusual clouds, this time resembling fried eggs, and their feathered friend

I sketched on regardless.

oil pastel sketch en plein air, semi-abstract

second sketch of the ‘grotto’, oil pastel in A6 sketchbook

Then we left, after one last look at the grotto daemon.

river god sculpture with sheep skull

an odd figure sits in the entrance to the ‘grotto’

This time we climbed even higher up the fell.

dark clouds, blue sky and hills

looking up to Arant Haw, with more curious clouds

After reaching the summit we descended, with ominous skies appearing once more.

photo of hills with approaching storm

more storm clouds are gathering over the hills

The thunder and rain held off each time, allowing us to return home safely, but the next time we visited the second tree the river had removed my addition to its artwork.